Since we are customer experience consultants and quite resourceful, we believe we set ourselves up well when preparing to travel. One of the simplest forms of escape is the Caribbean all inclusive (AI) resort. We've made eight AI trips in the last 10 years and have enough first hand knowledge to let the world know what we think. And let's face it, as Canadians living with too much cold and snow over a 12 month stretch, the temptation of white sand, clear blue water and an icy beverage or two is too hard to pass up - at least for us!
So what makes one AI resort stand out from the others? Are there themes common to all of them? What makes the experience so popular? What can you expect as a first timer? How expensive are these getaways? Which AI resorts do it best? Are there specific destinations that make more sense as an AI trip? Is there an argument for avoiding the AI experience altogether? What are the alternatives? Does time of year make a difference? Let's take a closer look.
The AI argument FOR - what do we like about it?
- Simplicity - once you are booked, there is little to do - just anticipate and hope the resort meets (and even better, exceeds!) your expectations. Of course, great weather is the one caveat to having a terrific time and depending on when you go, a little rain may dampen things - no pun intended!
- Having your cake and eating it too - assuming you are staying in a 4 or 5 star resort, it is fair to expect an above average room, sufficient amenities, decent food, activities, child care (if with kids), spa, room service, help with almost every facet of your trip and in most cases decent service.
- A great pool and, depending on location, a terrific beach attached to the resort - in most cases both are large enough to enjoy and be shared. Some resorts even wait on you while you are at the pool and/or beach and bring you icy beverages and snacks - now I feel like I need to get back there today!
- Value Proposition - the AI experience cannot be beat if you enjoy staying put (aside from paying for the odd excursion). The all in cost to fly, eat and stay at a hotel, will beat what you'd pay if buying everything separately. So if easy and affordable is what you seek, this is a great choice for you.
- Options - for almost every Caribbean destination there is an AI experience to be had - and while some destinations cater to this more than others (Jamaica, Cuba, Mexico, Dominican to name a few), they can pretty much be found anywhere.
The AI argument AGAINST - what do we not like about it?
- Repetition - If you like change, this is not the trip for you! Every day, unless you take an excursion or go into town (when one is even nearby), is it pretty much the SAME - essentially it can feel like an episode of Ground Hog Day that only ends after 7 days - for us that has been both good and bad.
- The Food - as admitted foodies, even the 5 star AI's we've visited have mediocre food, with the a la carte's often better than the buffet. Granted, there are many luxury AI resorts we have not been too and may indeed impress, however, the more accessible 4 & 5 star resorts are above average at best.
- Limited airline choices - in this case who you fly with and whether on a charter or not is less flexible, especially if you are tying to go on a specific date. In some cases, only charter airlines fly to certain resorts (and they just can't compete with the comforts of commercial airlines). Of course some may argue that this is a positive because if you are flexible and don't care about comforts you can get away really cheap.
The elusive AI CUSTOMER EXPERIENCE - what needs to improve?
This is where all AI's can improve (at least the one's we have visited). While there are various areas where some do better than others, and none we've visited have failed entirely, we are unconvinced that any resort has nailed the ideal customer experience. Some of the inconsistencies include:
- Proactive/consistent service - too often service is reactive and even then there is inconsistency among staff - #1 opportunity: more effective customer service training for staff in local language and English. Also. engage customers early about their experience and before a complaint is made, to allow time to turn things around.
- The food - simply has to get better across the board in terms of quality, flavour and consistency.
- Availability of chairs and towels in the room and at the pool/beach - we could share countless stories about how the search for a clean towel or pool side chair was a half day event - we kid you not!
- The need to make reservations - this contradicts the most substantial AI advantage: simplicity - why force customers to wait in line to eat at an a la carte? Moreover, please stop limiting the number of visits.
- Improving access to water and imported drinks - we will congratulate the first resort that offers unconditional drinks including beer, wine and pop as well as unlimited bottle water - haven't seen this yet.
All in all, we are in favour of the AI experience. While there are substantial ways most tour operators and resorts can improve, those seeking an affordable holiday in a warm place, with access to great pools/beaches, decent food and drink and some good company, this is the trip for you, especially if you like to remain seated. Just be sure to do your due diligence - we suggest reading a handful of 3 star reviews on Trip Advisor, which are often balanced and helpful.
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